Helping friends, acquaintances and even strangers can mitigate the impact of daily stress on our emotions and mental health, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine in US conducted a 14-day study on 77 adults, ranging from 18 to 44 years.
The participants received an automated phone reminder every night that prompted them to complete their daily assessment.
They were asked to report any stressful life events they experienced that day across several domains (eg interpersonal, work/education, home, finance, health/accident) and the total number of events comprised the measure of daily stress.
They were also asked to report whether they had engaged in various helpful behaviours (eg held open a door, helped with schoolwork, asked someone if they needed help) that day.
The participants also completed a 10-item short-form of the Positive and Negative Affect Scale, a well-validated measure of experienced emotion, and they were asked to rate their mental health for that day using a slider on a scale that ranged from 0 (poor) to 100 (excellent).
The results indicated that helping others boosted participants’ daily well-being. A greater number of helping behaviours was associated with higher levels of daily positive emotion and better overall mental health.
Participants’ helping behaviour also influenced how they responded to stress. People who reported lower-than-usual helping behaviour reported lower positive emotion and higher negative emotion in response to high daily stress.
Those who reported higher-than-usual levels of helping behaviour, on the other hand, showed no dampening of positive emotion or mental health, and a lower increase in negative emotion, in response to high daily stress.
In other words, helping behaviour seemed to buffer the negative effects of stress on well-being.
“Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” said Emily Ansell of the Yale University School of Medicine.
“Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days,” Ansell said.
“If a participant did engage in more prosocial behaviours on stressful days there was essentially no impact of stress on positive emotion or daily mental health,” Ansell said.
“And there was only a slight increase in negative emotion from stress if the participant engaged in more prosocial behaviours,” she said.
The findings were published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.